How Can Your Next of Kin Access Your Online Accounts If You Suddenly … Can’t?

It’s probably the last thing you want to think about: dying, although preparing for it may run a close second.

But don’t let the task seem too daunting. When it comes to managing your “digital estate” — the myriad of online accounts and entities you’ve accumulated — you can take some relatively simple steps to make sure you don’t leave behind a cyber mess.

Follow these seven steps and you’re on your way (figuratively, that is):

1. Make a list of your important online accounts and include the corresponding usernames, passwords, PINs and account numbers. Start with your financial accounts (bank, credit card, brokerage, retirement, pension, mortgage, others), then add others: email, cell phone, Internet, web hosting, social media, your blog, photo and video sharing, cloud/software as a service, utilities, subscriptions that renew automatically, gambling, Skype, IM, PayPal, Ebay and others. Don’t feel you have to include every single digital “asset” if it feels like too much work — just include the critical ones, at least for now.

2. Decide what you want done with each account and include those instructions on your list.

3. Put your lists someplace safe, like in a safe deposit box at the bank, a locked file cabinet or an encrypted, password-protected file stored on a USB flash drive or, if you must, on your computer.

4. Do NOT put the information in your will because wills become public once filed with the probate court.

5. Appoint someone who’s Internet savvy as your “digital executor.” It can be someone different from your regular executor.

6. Give your digital executor instructions for accessing your list — and your computer. Consider also asking your executor to “clean up” your computer: clear your browser cache, delete sensitive emails and trash certain files.

7. Keep your lists up to date!

Several online services simplify this (or parts of this) for you. A few examples: Entrustet, Legacy Locker and AssetLock. There’s even a service call Deathswitch that prompts you regularly to enter your password so it knows you’re still alive. If you don’t respond after several messages, it sends pre-scripted messages to people you’ve designated. Now those are emails you want to answer right away.